Nicola Vaccaj was a contemporary of Rossini and composer of numerous operas of which only his 1825 work Giulietta e Romeo survives. It was produced and recorded at the Festivale della Valle d’Itria in 2018 on the outdoor stage of the Palazzo Ducale in Martina Franca. Giulietta e Romeo, like Bellini’s work on the same subject, is based on earlier material rather than the Shakespeare play and it’s quite different apart from the basic faked death and dual suicide at the end. Here we are less concerned with two young lovers. There’s more broad-scale political stuff. Romeo commands the Ghibelline army that is besieging the Guelfs (including the Capulets) in Verona. He has already killed Giulietta’s brother in battle and the lovers have known each other for some time. So Romeo is rather more than a boy though still sung by a mezzo. The themes are more about bereavement and revenge than young love. The conflict is more than a quarrel between two urban dynasties.
Musically it’s quite interesting. There are few solo arias. There are lots of ensemble numbers and choruses as well as numbers where principals sing with the chorus. The first act seems reminiscent of early Verdi to me but act 2 feels more like to Donizetti or Bellini. Specifically there’s a lot of that bel canto thing where the emotional tenor of the music is far too cheerful for the subject matter. It certainly doesn’t sound like Rossini at his best but I’d take it over any number of the apparently infinite number of obscure Donizetti $chick di $places that it seems to be fashionable to rescue from well deserved oblivion.
Cecilia Ligorio’s production is dark, very dark. It’s hard to say when it’s set. Costume elements range from the 16th to the 19th century with a good deal of Game of Thrones chucked in. For example, early on when the Capulet’s are complaining about the perfidies of the other lot there are chaps in furs and wolves’ heads prancing around menacingly. It’s a unit set, of course. Basically it’s a courtyard with city walls in the background and a staircase up to Giulietta’s bedroom from which she can observe the scenes she’s not involved in. There’s some use of an apron extending either side of the pit; maybe in front of it too. It’s really hard to tell from the video. I think it’s pretty effective on the whole though the big fight scene at the end of the first act is a bit lame.
It’s a pretty good performance too. Both Spanish soprano Leonor Bonilla and Italian mezzo Raffaella Lupinacci are young singers with attractive voices, acting chops and eye candy quotient. They make an attractive pair of lovers. Baritone Christian Senn is a sympathetic and vocally solid Lorenzo; here a physician rather than a friar. Leonardo Cortellazzi’s somewhat muscular tenor suits the unsympathetic role of Capellio and there are solid contributions from Vasa Stajkic as Tebaldo and Paoletta Marrocu as Adelia (Signora Cappelio). The chorus sings well but isn’t much used on stage where a team of mime/acrobats are preferred. The orchestra is from the La Scala Academy and it’s conducted by Sesto Quatrini.
Matteo Richetti directed the video. It’s a tough one. It’s dark so much of the time and the well lit orchestra pit sometimes almost drowns out action around it. So some of his angles when the action is very close to the orchestra are disorienting. It may have been unavoidable. Certainly he isn’t afraid of showing the whole stage even when it’s hard to see what’s going on. Blu-ray can just about cope with the loss of detail. I wouldn’t even consider buying this on DVD. Both the surround and stereo sound tracks are Blu-ray quality.
There’s a good interview with the director included as a bonus on the disk and the booklet has useful information about Vaccaj and this opera as well as synopsis and track listing. Subtitle options are Italian, English, French, German, Japanese and Korean.
So, it’s quite an interesting opera, the production is effective and sometimes visually more than usually interesting and the young singers and orchestra do a good job. It’s probably not going to make it into the canon of early 19th century operas but it’s worth a look.
Bonus trivia about Nicola Vaccaj; he wrote a singing manual which is still used today to teach bel canto technique. Also his opera Giovanna Grey (named of course after my cat) was the last thing Maria Malibran appeared in at La Scala before her untimely death in Manchester.